By Judith Norkin
Just for the record: I didn’t always respect the wisdom of the East. Before having children, I was a great big egomaniac full of ambition. Work was my highest priority and I hungered for worldly things: books, art, music, clothes, travel. I did what I wanted, when I wanted.
Life was interesting. My friends and I ran off at a moment’s notice to convert the natives of Malawi to democracy or to herd ponies in the fields of Denmark. In fact, I decided to get pregnant while driving through Normandy, high on Calvados and fresh foie gras. Having a baby wasn’t going to change things, I said to my travel companion. It might slow me down—but not much.
Had I been better attuned to the sounds of the cosmos, I would have heard: “Ha, ha, ha! Ohh, Grasshopper, that booming sound is laughter ringing through the halls of your nowhere-near-enlightened consciousness.” But I couldn’t have heard and, consequently, my awakening was not merely rude. It was agonizing and horrific.
Pregnancy. Childbirth. I don’t know what my daughter had done in a previous life to have landed a mother like me, but whether I was ready or not, she was born. Who would have believed that one day I’d take a job where I would be on 24/7 standby, would receive no pay, no accolades, no perks and would, for long periods of time, go topless?
Though I felt an inexplicably strong urge to shelter and protect the noisy, red-faced creature that was my daughter, I also felt like she was killing me. I missed my work, my friends, my freedom. From the outside looking in, I was a traditional stay-at-home mom, but being a mother seemed to me the most radical act imaginable. How could everyone take this for granted? Here I’d spent my entire life trying to be somebody, and with one heaving push, I had become nobody. A mother. Ugh.
People said it would get better. Sure, I thought. Like in eighteen years. Some people said I’d still be able to travel . . . well, I could hardly get to the grocery store, so I seriously doubted I’d be jetting around the world. In the evenings, after my husband returned from work, I fled (for as long as my milk-heavy breasts would allow) to the local Wal-Mart, where I walked up and down the aisles in stony silence, as if answers to my identity crisis could be found in the merchandise crowding the shelves. I was miserable. The parts of myself that I liked best were gone, lost. The only thing growing was the diaper pile. I would never be my own person again. Degrees, titles, fancy clothes—none of it mattered here in bleak mother country.
Then I came upon a book that really helped. It was a guide to Buddhist meditation. Reading it, I realized that certain aspects of Buddhism would be quite useful to me. Here was a belief system that seemed perfectly compatible with mothering. Putting my needs aside to care for another person didn’t make me a loser—it made me a hero! Individuality? Who needed it! Independence? It was a curse, a delusion that prevented me from reaching a state of union with the divine. In the Eastern tradition, selflessness and egolessness lead the way to happiness.
Clearly this was a system tailor-made for mothers. The amorphous, amoebic state of mind that so aggravated me was actually something people took years to achieve! And here I’d gone and done it without having to shave my head or sit on the floor for hours. I accumulated a good-sized library on the subject. And the more I read, the sorrier I was that I didn’t spend more of my prenatal time in Eastern studies. It would have been much better preparation for motherhood then all the stupid Lamaze and parenting classes I sat through at the local hospital.
I decided that I just had to look at things a bit differently. It was a matter of spin control. Why, motherhood was not exhausting and thankless—it was actually a low-budget Buddhist boot camp! Endless weeks without sleep were not torture—they were spiritual lessons of the highest order! Sure, I felt like one of the living dead, but how else could I cultivate what the monks called “emptiness of mind,” a necessary prerequisite to enlightenment? I was not irritable and overwhelmed—I was a disciple. And this little girl, with her teensy diaper bunched around her spindly, Gandhi-esque thighs was not an ordinary baby—she was a guru sent to show me the path to enlightenment.
Thinking that way worked for a while. Now, with seven years of Mommy experience on my current resume (and little legitimate work experience for the last couple of those on my “real” one), it sends me into hysterics to hear mothers-to-be make the same declarations that I once did. “How much work can one little baby be?” Or, “My baby will be on a strict schedule.” Or, best of all, “Having a baby isn’t going to change me one bit.” I can’t tell them the truth because they wouldn’t believe me—just as I wouldn’t have believed anyone who tried telling me. No, the only thing to do is nod, smile, and suppress my wicked grin. Wicked grinning is unseemly for a student of the Eastern way, I know. I’m not perfect yet.
Anyway, those Western-minded, about-to-be mommies are probably just looking at me with pity, if not contempt. To their unpracticed eyes I am nothing. No one. I have given up my work, my identity, and my independence to be available to my children—at least for a few more years. But let the about-to-be mommies mock me. What they don’t know is that I’m not just a mother; I’m a certifiable Zen master. The self-obliteration that Mommyhood still requires keeps me on the Path. Just so you know, “certifiable” is the key word here. And if they’re like most mothers, eventually they’ll be certifiable too.
Author’s Note: I started writing about motherhood in 1993, when my daughter was born. My early essays were angry treatises on the devaluation of caretaking, what I perceived as belittling social attitudes towards mothers, and gender inequity. At some point I discovered that people were more receptive to my ideas when I communicated with humor, which is what I have tried to do here.
This piece was written while I was bedridden due to complications from a spinal tap. No cooking, cleaning, or childcare for an entire week—it was the closest I’ll come to a writer’s retreat for a while.
Brain, Child (Fall 2001)
Judith Norkin is a freelance writer living in a suburb of Philadelphia. She regularly contributes to the Philadelphia Citypaper and other publications.
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